Many of the books I read this month are about making a life. As Teen the Elder draws nearer to setting off on his own adventures, I’ve been thinking about the life we’ve made as a family. It may seem strange to track that through books, but we recently went down to Ikea to get the last bookcase we needed to fill out the wall in our living room and finally get the piles of books up off the floor.
This project required reorganizing all our books– which are shelved for usability rather than in a particular order, in loose subject grouping and by size and distance from the floor for those of us who are height challenged. I had a good time looking back at the passions the kids have pursued over the years, from spies to Ancient Egypt to birds to maps to the many books of history, science, and art projects we worked on together. And I enjoyed re-shelving many favorite books I read aloud. For our family, making a good life together has meant learning together, sharing our interests, exploring new ones. Books have been an important piece of that life, and my newly arranged shelves serve as a kind of memory album.
So with all of this on my mind, perhaps it’s no coincidence that as I read this month, I was considering the way we humans make our way in the world. Most of us are seeking to live together as best we can, making our lives meaningful in some way, often through our connections with one another. Some people are of course more deliberate about this than others, to the point of feeling they know what’s best for others as well as themselves.
In her new book Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell examines some very determined folks who set out to make Hawaii part of America. Since we lived there for three years (both the Computer Scientist and Teen the Elder were born in Hawaii while their fathers were stationed there with the Navy & Marine Corps, respectively), I also found myself reminiscing about our time there but also reflecting on the tensions that still exist between native Hawaiians and “haoles.”
Vowell traces the many forces that led to the annexation of the islands, from the first New England missionaries, who were sure that a good life meant converting Hawaiians to Christianity and de-heathenizing their culture, to the wealthy sugar plantation owners and politicians who weren’t content with cultural “improvements” and wanted Hawaii to be American mainly so they could avoid tariffs and gain a good spot to park Navy ships. I really enjoyed her smart but cheeky tone, and found the history fascinating. Vowell’s observation that the missionaries and the Hawaiian royals were actually both “traditionalists” at odds over the best way for Hawaiians to live is particularly interesting and insightful.
I read Vowell’s book because she came to Concord on her book tour. Another author who stopped by Gibson’s in March is Caitlin Shetterly, for her book Made for You and Me. Shetterly’s book is a memoir about her experience moving to LA with her husband Dan and their pets, discovering she was pregnant, then slowly watching her husband’s freelance photography work dry up as the recession hit, and ultimately deciding to move back home with her mother in Maine. Shetterly writes with humor and great affection, sharing the best and worst of their experiences without shying away from occasionally poking fun at herself.
Caitlin told fans at the store that she thinks of Made for You and Me as a love story as well as a story about what happens to a man who believes in the American Dream when it falls apart. It’s also a book about making a new American dream, one in which building community, sharing lives with family and friends, and living simply become hallmarks of success, rather than making it “big.” Not that financial success is bad — we’d all like to be secure and provide for our families, and have some luxuries.
Caitlin and Dan became part of a new community virtually; friends and eventually strangers all over the country responded when she began blogging about their experiences and recording a “recession diary” for NPR. They also found to their surprise that coming home with unrealized dreams led to many unexpected joys. My favorite parts of the book — the moments where I felt like I was part of their tribe, too — are the tender moments they share with their newborn or their pets. In a world where I’m constantly feeling the tug between wanting to be mindful, wanting to spend more time just being with my family and friends, and needing to meet many obligations, Made for You and Me was a nice break and a reminder than I should listen to the mindful voice.
You could not ask for a better book about living well by caring for one another than Desmond Tutu’s Made for Goodness, which he wrote with his daughter, Mpho. This a book to re-read and study. Part memoir, part theology, part manual for living intentionally, this is a brilliant little book. Bishop Tutu explains why, after all of the hardship, misery, and horror he has seen and experienced, he believes that we humans are indeed “made for goodness.” In simple but lovely language, he explains how we can release guilt, worry, and fear of not living up to our potential so that we can forgive, live compassionately, and make lives filled with meaningful, loving relationships with our fellow human beings.
If this sounds very “airy fairy,” it’s not. Tutu has seen the worst in people, and he’s also seen what reconciliation can do. His points are gentle, but rooted in strong faith and deep wisdom. He’s also very much a man living in the world and not in an ivory tower — when he talks about people being tough on their kids, or about marriage, or dealing with difficult situations at work, or being impatient with the world, he offers examples from his own life, and his daughter’s. I definitely plan to get this book and take time reflecting more carefully on what it means to be good and how to purposefully seek goodness.
Before I turn to fiction and poetry, I read one more memoir this month, Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo. This is another fascinating book set in the Middle East (bookconscious regulars know I’ve worked my way through books about Iran, Israel, & Syria in the last year or so), this time in Lebanon and Iraq, where Ciezadlo and her husband, Mohammed, are journalists. She begins in New York, where she and Mohammed meet, and traces their moves to Beirut and Baghdad, their work there, and the way she tries to find community in food, friends and family. The descriptions of food will make you hungry, but Ciezadlo provides recipes in the back of the book.
From the first time she and Mohammed go out, they bond over food, even though they have somewhat different tastes. Later, when she meets his family, she gets to know siblings and friends in Beirut as they go out to eat, and connects with her mother-in-law by asking her to teach her to prepare Lebanese home-cooking. In hotels rooms, Ciezadlo rigs kitchens out of hotplates & mini fridges and shops in neighborhood markets, trying to create a normal life in an otherwise chaotic situation.
Both as memoir — examining her own life and dreams and her struggle to make a home in the middle of war zones — and as a journalist’s examination of war, Day of Honey is enthralling. Ciezadlo’s observations about the Iraq war, sectarian violence there, and the people she meets in Iraq, are unlike anything I’ve read about the war; both more personal and more universal. Her accounts of the end of a relatively peaceful time in Lebanon brought on by the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the Cedar Revolution, and the Hezbollah-Israel war are also incredible — through her eyes and the eyes of her Lebanese friend and family we see sectarianism, the chaos of war, and the senseless destruction of homes and lives. It’s depressing to see so clearly what human beings wreak upon one another.
But there is also much hope, much beauty, and much humor in Day of Honey. You get the sense that even in horrible times, people are resilient and more look out for each other than not. I felt outraged that Hezbollah influences people with handouts and disaster relief, but heartened that they don’t actually do it all that well, and that many ordinary Lebanese reject their ideas when they can speak freely. As my grandmother would say, people just want to live, raise their families, make a life. We often discussed the Middle East together, and agreed that the partisan old men need to go before real peace can be made there.
Anyway, Day of Honey is a wonderful book. I enjoyed the excellent writing as well as the insightful reflection on places of conflict, what home means and how we can make ourselves a home in even the most challenging situations. I also admired the way Mohammed’s family embraced their new American member and laughed out loud at some of the ways they didn’t see eye to eye. Ciezadlo is gracious though, and writes quite tenderly of her extended family.
Which brings me to a novel of family, friendship, and home — Minding Ben. Author Victoria Brown was at WI6 in Washington, where I met her. The novel is about a teenager from Trinidad who leaves home alone to move to New York and make a new life. From the beginning, when her cousin doesn’t show up at the airport, her American Dream is nothing like she’d expected. Another example of the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading: this book, like Made for You and Me, addresses the idea of chasing the American Dream and shaping it to fit a new reality.
Grace wants to further her education, work, and make something of herself. What she finds is that without papers she can’t make much progress, and that jobs are hard to come by. Working as a nanny for a stereotypical neurotic New York power couple, trying to help her cousin Sylvia get her apartment re-painted when the youngest child, who can’t speak, test positive for lead poisoning, navigating the immigrant social scene with her best friend, Grace lives up to her name. You’ll love her for it.
Readers can’t help but admire Grace as she helps everyone in her life who needs it, puts up with her obnoxious employers, and does her best to keep in touch with her mother and sister in Trinidad, where her father is ill and getting worse. This is a contemporary urban novel of manners, with Grace the plucky heroine who represents all that is right in the world. As in a Dickens novel, or Austen, you can tell which people are Good and which are not. But Brown makes it more complex — a few characters are just conflicted or overwhelmed, like real people.
Brown touches on the disparity in health care and living standards between the rich and the poor, the unfortunate fact that illegal immigration provides domestic help for wealthy Americans, the differences between America’s image abroad as a place of plenty and the reality immigrants find when they arrive. Her insights into the pecking order among a building’s nannies and the strange social climbing of Grace’s employer are witty and entertaining. But the novel is best at the points where we see Grace becoming who she wanted to be — a self-reliant, strong, capable young woman who finally gets a break towards the end of the book. I’ll leave it at that for those who want to read it.
From a novel of manners to a novel of interiors — Emily Alone, by Stewart O’Nan. This is a follow up to Wish You Were Here; O’Nan told the New York Time’s The New Old Age blog he had “unfinished business” with the “irrepressible” Emily Maxwell. Most of Emily Alone takes place in Emily’s house in Pittsburgh. She’s a widow, and the last of her group of friends still living in her neighborhood. As the book progresses, she attends funerals for a couple of her contemporaries. The person she talks to and sees most often is her sister-in-law Arlene, with whom she’s always had a difficult relationship.
As I read, I was so impressed with the depth of this book; O’Nan plumbs every detail of Emily’s day to day life — the way she makes lists and notes in her calendar to make sure she doesn’t forget anything, the way she returns to driving after Arlene is hospitalized, her thought process as she buys a new car, as she prepares for a Christmas visit with her daughter and grandchildren. Everything from her breakfast buffet coupons to her thoughts on music, her reflections on her own parents, and the way she sees her changing neighborhood is lovingly crafted on the page for readers to absorb. Even her thoughts on her dog and Arlene’s fish, or the weather’s impact on her moods — these small details add up to portrait of Emily that you can turn in your mind like a prism, enjoying each glint of color and light.
And this is a book to absorb. Lately I’ve been wishing I had more time to savor books, instead of having so many to read and limited time. Emily Alone would be the perfect book to read in small bites, with a cup of tea, stopping to gaze out at my own neighborhood, and to ponder what my life might be like when I’m in my late 70’s.
It’s a book to muse on. Why do we sometimes have challenging relationships even with those we’re closely related to (especially by marriage)? Why do people who grew up in the same household turn out to be such different adults? Why does our culture expect us to leave our kids alone when they’re adults, when so many other cultures live multi-generationally and put the advice of elders ahead of other considerations?
Listening to Stewart O’Nan when he visited Gibson’s was fascinating. I’ve mentioned before how much author readings have added to my reading life; Caitlin Shetterly posed the same question during her reading, about why Americans don’t have intergenerational households. Sarah Vowell shared many insights, including what she admires about missionaries (in Hawaii, they created a written version of Hawaiian and wrote a number of books which are still used today to keep that language alive). Stewart shared a little about how he researches books.
Unlike people who say “write what you know,” Stewart writes what he wants to find out about. He told us he asked older people at library readings what they thought about their neighborhoods changing. He asked them about gardening; why they did it, what they enjoyed, how they thought about it in the winter. You can see all of this in Emily Alone — all of Emily’s thoughts, her happiness digging in the flower beds, the way her summer is organized around her garden, her sadness looking back at neighborhood cookouts and parties. Her minor irritations with slowing down in old age.
The result is a book that feels like a life. Stewart has made Emily so thoroughly real, so recognizable, that I feel sure I’ve known her (twice) in the real world. And a couple of weeks after I’ve finished the book, I am still thinking about her. I plan to go back and read Wish You Were Here soon, and I think Emily Alone would make a really good community-wide read.
Interestingly, Stewart mentioned two other books I read recently: The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht (which I wrote about here last month), and Touch by Alexi Zentner. It turns out these books, or their kernels at least, came out of the same workshop. I just finished Touch and I can see how it shares certain sensibilities with The Tiger’s Wife — both are stories told by an adult grandchild, incorporating stories the grandparent told, and both novels are tinged with myth and magic. Both novelists look at death and what we tell ourselves about those who’ve died. And both are beautifully told, beautifully written stories. But Touch has much to recommend it on its own.
Touch is a quiet book. Almost all of the action happens in the small village of Sawgamet in Western Canada, where the main character, Stephen, has come home to serve as pastor of the Anglican church. His mother is dying, and he sits in the study of the home she shared with him and his step-father, remembering events from his boyhood, and earlier stories told by his father and grandfather about the family before he was born.
The soft tone of the novel, like the snow which frequently falls in Sawgamet, masks the depth of the tragedies which people in this little village have experienced. Fires, logging accidents, deadly blizzards, and the strange death of Stephen’s grandfather on the night he believes he’s found his long dead wife alive in the woods are background for the central sorrow of Stephen’s life. When he was a boy, his sister fell through the river ice while skating and died, along with his father, who was trying to save her.
But all of this, while key to the book, is not the point of Touch. The novel is about love and loss and the mystery of death, and it’s about history carrying into the present through generations, but it’s also about making our lives whole. Those who can do so in Sawgamet manage it by facing the difficult stories, picking themselves up, and creating new stories of their own in their families, homes, and work. Those who, like Stephen’s grandfather, have a foothold somewhat too strong in the magical, awful stories of the past never manage to make their lives whole in the present.
I think this is true even for those of us who don’t live in a place with a strong sense of fable. Our cultural and familial stories can something have such a strong grasp on us that we fail to thrive in our present lives, caught by the invisible hands of those who suffered before us. And yet, often in the same family, there’s someone (or several people) who manages to make it. It’s a curious conundrum. And it happens, even in families with no tragic past. Sometimes people are caught up in their families’ past successes just as badly.
My own musings aside, I found Touch just beautiful, and Stephen is one of my new favorite characters in literature. The strength he exudes just quietly sitting at his desk, reflecting on not just the past but on his daughters and his wife, his stepfather and mother, is inspiring. The generous amount of empathy with which he tells readers of his family’s past horrors is admirable. He’s a compassionate, intelligent, and impartial narrator.
Which is also how I hear the voice of poet David Budbill. I read Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse this month. I love the way these poems tell readers that the poet is torn between wishing to live a reclusive literary life close to the land and wanting to be a rock star poet, speaking to packed halls and selling lots of books. Because who wouldn’t like to have both?
And in some ways, Budbill does. No poet really packs halls these days, or sells as many books as a popular novelist, but Budbill has become well known for his poetry, novel, children’s book, essays, commentary, and plays. His poems are funny, wise, and natural; nothing you can’t understand on the first reading, plenty to learn from each subsequent reading.
Many of the poems in Moment to Moment describe Budbill’s mountain home in Vermont and the birds and animals who live there. Another favorite topic is Chinese art and poetry. One of my favorites, ” On the Way to Buddhahood,” which I have had hanging in my kitchen for a couple of years, is about the poet’s spiritual path: “Ever plainer. Ever simpler./Ever more ordinary./My goal is to become a simpleton./And from what everybody tells me/I am making real progress.”
Another poem I like is a curmudgeonly look at contemporary America’s obsession with self-help gurus, “Trying To Be Who I Already Am.” He quotes a 4th century Chinese nature poet, “My nature comes of it itself. It isn’t something/you can force into line” and then he continues, ” So, please, leave me alone./I don’t want your advice./I’m just trying to be/who I already am.”
Some of the poems are koan-like in their double edged simplicity/complexity. For example, “You False Masters of Serenity,” which to me sums up the enormous struggle I have with mindfulness in the modern world: “Damn all you/false masters of serenity,/gurus of happy./Struggle/is what it means/ to be alive and free.”
I’ve read that one over and over, and rolling it around my brain. In light of the revolutions taking place in North Africa and the Middle East, the sectarian struggles in many other places, the nuclear and post-tsunami/earthquake recovery in Japan, the ongoing problems in Haiti, and even the protests in the U.S. over budgets and bargaining rights, Budbill seems to have boiled the essence of humanity into a short simple, somewhat humorous poem. Struggle is what it means to be alive and free. Wow.
There are many more that I love in this collection, and I look forward to Budbill’s forthcoming book, Happy Life. Another poetry book I read this month is Working In Flour, by New Hampshire poet Jeff Friedman. I took a wonderful workshop with Jeff at NH Writers’ Project’s Writer’s Day a couple of years ago, and read Taking Down the Angel.
Many of the poems I liked best in that book are midraschic. In Working In Flour, “Ladder,” in Jacob’s voice, is a beautiful and disturbing re-imagining Jacob’s dream of the ladder descending from heaven. “Ararat” is the only literature I’ve ever seen that deal with post-flood realities that seem eerily like the aftermath of a tsunami: “The dove never came back./Everywhere we looked there were dead bodies,/piles of wood, shards of glass,/ shreds of fabric, fragments of roofs,/jewelry glinting in sand.” And “The Binding,” tells the story of Abraham’s sacrifice from Isaac’s perspective.
Other poems I enjoyed in Working In Flour are the title poem, about an inept would-be bakery worker, who screws everything up so much on his first day that he’s told on the second, “I liked you better as a customer.” “Luna Moth,” in which, “. . . the luna moth scudded through our bedroom, reading/my horoscope on the dust of the blinds.” And “The War On Fat, Frontenac Plaza,” which made me laugh.
I finally finished The Making of a Sonnet this month, the excellent anthology from Norton, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland. It took a couple of years, but I really enjoyed this comprehensive look at the sonnet through the ages, around the world, and in variations. It would be fruitless to try recall all the poems I especially liked over such a long time, but I came across one recently as I came near the end of the book which was new to me, “History,” by another New Hampshire poet, Charles Simic.
As for the rest of the family, Teen the Younger is reading vampire books — no, not Twilight, but The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod by Heather Brewer. She says she likes them because the typical school drama stuff isn’t prominent, but instead there’s a real story. She’s also reading all kinds of Manga. I realized recently that she’s read nearly 50 volumes of Naruto alone.
After we watched Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show, she picked up Unfamiliar Fishes and vanished into her room with it. And because her Grandpa is reading Bill Bryson, Teen the Younger is reliving happy childhood memories re-reading I’m A Stranger Here Myself, which for years was a road trip staple in our house. I’d read it aloud, or, when the kids and I would make our epic summer drives from south Georgia to New Hampshire, we’d listen to the audio book.
As I’ve mentioned before, Mr. Bryson is a bookconscious household hero. My kids are convinced there’s no wittier man on earth, and our presence in New Hampshire is at least partly due to my reading I’m A Stranger Here Myself around the time the Computer Scientist and I were circling potential place to live on a U.S. map. And now my dad is reading the entire Bryson oeuvre as well.
Teen the Elder read Twelfth Night last month and said it’s his favorite of the three Shakespeare plays he’s read and others he’s seen. He liked the complexity of the play with its many sub-plots. He’s thoroughly wrapped up in music these days, creating his own tunes in FL Studio (and now on Garage Band on our new hand-me-down IPad) and listening to all kinds of things, and reported that other than the play, everything else he read in March was “pretty boring.” Sigh.
The Computer Scientist started The Tiger’s Wife and and re-read The Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris. He says, “I’ve always enjoy the Hannibal Lecter line of stories and this one is no exception. Gory details and gritty story open a window to psychopaths that Harris describes so well. If you at all found Silence of the Lambs interesting, I definitely recommend you read all the stories.”
He also read a book I picked up for both of us at WI6, whose author, I am excited to say, is coming to Gibson’s June 2: It Happened On the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace, by Rye Barcott. As a former Marine himself, the Computer Scientist has this to say about Rye and his work:
“Rye Barcott is an amazing human with unbelievable energy and drive. While only a college student on the path to service as a Marine Officer, Rye envisions and launches a grass-roots non-profit in one of the most challenging locations in all of Africa: the Kibera slums in Kenya. He tells his story of navigating the complexities of governmental organizations and the military, balancing his studies and personal life, and overcoming challenges that would cause most to simply quit. I especially appreciate Rye’s honest description of the disappointments in his life without letting them slow him down. Rye’s story is one that every person could benefit from hearing.” I can’t wait to read the book myself, and hear Rye at Gibson’s.
I’ve started Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams, who is coming to Gibson’s on April 21, and so far it’s fascinating. I want to read all kinds of things; my bedside piles continue to overflow, plus I’ve re-discovered some to-reads on the shelves as I re-organized. For Lent, I’m reading Opening To You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, by Norman Fischer, which I found at the St. Michael’s library book sale shelf.
On April 23, I am planning to attend the Five Colleges Book Sale once again, and I can’t wait to see what treasures I’ll find. And now that I have an IPad, I am probably going to have to see what the e-book fuss is all about, so I’ll be able to discuss physical versus e-books intelligently. Stay tuned!
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